Saturday, April 09, 2005

Blogito Ergo Sum

From the Woodstock Times, April 8, 2005:
In February 1994 Richard Snyder, chairman of the Simon & Schuster empire, was asked to comment on the growing phenomenon of self publishing. “I do not believe,” he sniffed, “that any good book ever went unpublished.” Rolling in their graves at that moment were Jonson, Donne, Blake, Byron, Pope, Shelley, Dumas and, among many self-published Americans, Poe, Crane, and Whitman. Some paid printers to publish their work, before such practices came to be termed “vanity publishing”; others set up private presses and produced very fine examples of the bookman’s craft. The press of Horace Walpole is a well-known example; William Morris’s Kelmscott Press is another.

Publishers had come into being in England around 1680, when some booksellers not licensed to print books under the authority of the Crown through the Stationers Company paid proxy Stationers for the use of their name and their royal protection. The Company of Stationers had been formed by Queen Mary in 1557 to oversee the “art and mystery” of printing (and principally to institutionalize the Crown’s oversight of potentially seditious publications). Wholesalers (“wholesalemen”) came into being around 1700 and soon thereafter a network of wholesaling “congers” who, with their warehouses, permitted booksellers to sell the wares of many printers. While printers remained Stationers, the term that described the bulk of their day-to-day trade, they slowly transformed from direct sellers (retailers) of their own output to wholesale producers of books and newspapers to be sold at shops that did not have printing facilities.

Indeed, the very notion of a modern publisher who provided advance funds to authors as well as providing for sales, production, and modest promotion was not well entrenched until the 1850s. Until then, in the four centuries following Gutenberg, the do-it-yourself (or in today’s hurried parlance, DIY) publishing model might include an author’s finding his own customers by building a subscription list for a prospective title before he commissioned its printing.

Beginning in the 1970s, the advent of the photocopier, increasingly cheap offset technologies, and the internet has produced an explosion in DIY publishing: zines (self-published magazines or newsletters, deriving from the term “fanzines”); blogs (personal journals or filtered links to interesting stuff on the web, deriving from the term “weblogs”); and “alternative” or small-press publishing ranging from punk “comix” to low-volume, on-demand book publishing. Underlying this entire movement since the personal computer became ubiquitous in the mid-1980s has been desktop publishing, which permitted amateur artists and writers to publish at little or no cost and to engage in utopian rhetoric about the glories of disintermediation (removing the hated middleman).

Professional artists and designers, however, as well as traditional publishers and printers, initially viewed desktop publishing as a solution in search of a problem. For them, not only was this technology an enabler of banal writing, bad typography and worse design, it also led to visual clutter and marketplace “noise” … like graffiti and rap. And like those two rebelliously grating modes of self-expression, zines and blogs have come to be prized by the young in large measure because they are dismissed by most adults.

Are blogs and zines just extensions of the disco era’s CB Radio craze, which permitted one to connect over great distance despite having nothing to say? (Here’s a blog entry, in full, from Slashdot: “wow. I was walking to school yesterday, and I found this big fat tube just lying on the ground. I picked it up, and it spent the day in my locker. I took it home. It’s cool.”) Does self publishing require a sense of audience — i.e., having something to say that might be of interest to others — or is it merely self-expression, a stance or an attitude useful for inflating one’s sense of psychosocial empowerment, like the rampant teen “grrrl” zines?

Or is a worthwhile examination of self publishing not at all about such conventional considerations as craft or audience acceptance … that like the Starkist brand’s Charlie the Tuna, we just don’t get it? (He was studying fine art because he thought he needed to acquire good taste, having misconstrued the message that what he needed to do was taste good.) I am beginning to think so. Zines and blogs, and maybe even graffiti and rap, are interesting simply because they exist, although of course there will be better and worse examples of each genre. They all represent efforts to tell a story, to declare one’s very existence even if no one is listening — that is, to declare one’s existence to one’s self. While blogs are launched onto the worldwide web and thus have a theoretical audience of millions, in actuality all but a handful lay claim to a real-world circle of friends, family, and coworkers — a nanoaudience. Taking off from Andy Warhol’s now tired claim that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, Martin Schwimmer neatly observed that in the blogosphere “everyone will be famous to 15 people.”

Following the impulse from which all art is created, a DIY publishing effort comes into being because it must, and thereafter it is asked to perform no function; it is because it is. In the eighteenth century and earlier, women in particular created a rich epistolary and private-journal culture because no one was offering money for their words. Their letters and daily musings formed a self-publishing as well as a self-revelatory phenomenon, even more so than email today because of the greater commitment and sensory resonance that accompany the word written by hand.

Printed zines and alternative press (as opposed to electronic publications) are similarly tactile and thus complex bundles, making demands upon their creators for ever growing levels of expertise in matters editorial, graphic, printing, promotion, fulfillment, and the all-important matter of distribution. These folks may be caught up in an oppositional attitude toward majority culture, but they are at heart old-school. They struggle to find readers, they work to distinguish themselves from their packs of competitors, and the best of them aim to change the world, or at least their little chunk of it, one page at a time. These are the impulses that drove the Soviet-era samizdatniks, that drove Walt Whitman to self-publish Leaves of Grass, that drove the unknown cave painter at Lascaux. The power to create is magical, maybe even a gift from the gods, and it may be celebratory or transformative of its culture. Today as before, mass media tends to celebrate and preserve, leaving to outsiders the responsibility to challenge and change.

What explains the impulse to engage in so difficult a task as self publishing in print? For certain people, its very difficulty is a prime source of its appeal. With all the talk of zines as a hip or quirky trend, there’s no getting around the fact that production is grindingly hard work, especially in the hours after one has completed a 9-5 job. It is this new but old work ethic that makes zines so appealing to print veterans like me, regardless of how we may feel about a publication’s content. A laudable local example (i.e., Kingston, New York) of a print zine is the recently launched Scenery, published by Katie Cahill and Zac Shaw, while Altercation, a locally based but nationally distributed music quarterly published by Justin and Donna Habersaat, is celebrating its fifth year of publication.

Certainly the barrier to entry in blogging is lower. So while printed zines have the most in common with historical forbears, it is blogs, especially the celebrated muckraking ones, that have provided the bulk of recent innovation and influence. Blogs are all the rage these days in part because they are so easy to set up, and they’re free. But they’ve bee around since 1993, with the first being Tim Berners-Lee’s "What’s New?"page at, which pointed to new websites as they came online. In fact, the original model for Yahoo! was also basically a web filter that pointed to cool places to go on the web; the syndicated content and bounteous features came later, as they have for Google. Weblogs that point to other places on the web, even other blogs, quickly became so self-referential as to be inconsequential, which is where the personal or journal blog came in.

Invoking Jacques Derrida or Jean Baudrillard, media savants have hailed blogging as a weapon against “global information hegemony.” I don’t know about that, but I was moved last week to write to my three sons: “Gents, I have just started a blog. Yes I know I’m the last kid on my block to do so. It will feature my work but also yours if you like. I did this in about half an hour, and I can edit the page pretty easily, including adding links that you suggest, photos, etc. I’d like for this not to be a family photo site, but instead a place where strangers might find good stuff to read.” This hybrid blog, joining journal with filter, is the one you from which you now read.

Maybe next week I’ll buy a CD by Mos Def or Public Enemy.

--John Thorn


Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Nice stuff. I especially appreciate the historical perspective on attempts at self-expression by the lumpen, or the downtrodden, or the disenfranchised. Those descriptions don't apply to all bloggers (certainly not me), but putting the tools in the hands of the people always seems like a good idea to me.

Er, but Mos Def, though...

4:25 PM  

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